In only his second Grand Prix with Ferrari, this unlucky Swede raced into Italian Folklore, but not the record books. Adam Cooper explains
Stefan Johansson is not the only Formula Onedriver of modem times who will forever be marked as a man who never won a race: Jean-Pierre Jarier, Eddie Cheever, Derek Warwick and Martin Brundle all have hard luck stories about near misses. But Stefan’s big day could have been very big indeed.
In 1985, he came within two-and-a-half laps of winning a Grand Prix in a Ferrari, in front of an Italian crowd, on only his second outing with the team — and after passing half a dozen past or future world champions. Life could have been very different.
He started that season contracted to Toleman, but the team failed to appear for the simple reason that it had no tyre deal. He was a late nomination for Tyrrell in Brazil, when Uncle Ken got into a contractual dispute with Stefan Bellof, but after that the Swede’s immediate future was uncertain.
But then Ferrari sacked a badly behaving Rene Arnoux, and a prime seat became available alongside Michele Alboreto. “It was a dream come true in every respect,” Johansson recalls. “We’d actually been talking for quite a while, after I did some races with Toleman the year before. The one that got them interested was Estoril, when I had a dice with Niki Lauda for the whole race. Marco Piccinini of Ferrari made contact that autumn, and we talked on and off in the winter about possibly doing some testing if the Toleman deal didn’t happen.
“When the Arnoux thing came up, they called and [Toleman team boss] Alex Hawkridge agreed to release me. That all happened within two or three days. It was fantastic. Hard to take it all in. “When I first arrived at the Ferrari factory it was incredibly impressive, with the test track and the rest of it. But we didn’t have time to do an awful lot of running. I had 10 laps in the car before Estoril, and I don’t remember doing any testing before the second race at Imola, so I was obviously quite green in the car. But it felt very good at Imola from the moment we started practice. On Friday morning, I remember being quickest. It was really hooked up and I was quite excited, thinking I’d possibly go out and get pole. I ended up 15th!”
A mere two places ahead of Jonathan Palmer’s Zakspeed, in fact. Loose underbody had thwarted Stefan on Friday; on Saturday, it was a misfire and being baulked by a spinning car on his hot lap. The honeymoon was over. The Italian media began to pine for good old Rene.
Johansson’s race prospects didn’t look good, and he made heavy work of it in the early stages. He gained only one spot on the first lap, and picked up two more when Gerhard Berger (Arrows) and Riccardo Patrese (Alfa Romeo) made early stops. Andrea de Cesaris (Ligier) held him up for a few laps, and it wasn’t until lap 10 that Stefan passed the Arrows of Thierry Boutsen for 10th place. Things started to happen more quickly after that.
Within eight laps he was up to sixth: Nelson Piquet (Brabham) had pitted, and he had passed Eddie Cheever (Alfa Romeo) and the Williams of Nigel Mansell and Keke Rosberg, all of whom were running with one eye on the fuel gauge. When team-mate Alboreto hit electrical problems on lap 24, Johansson was up to fifth, and still apparently in no trouble with consumption, always a prime concern at this circuit.
“Without boasting, I really drove a perfect race, because I was saving fuel all the time. I was running very light on the boost, feathering the throttle, using my Porsche sports-car experience. At Imola, more than anywhere else, you can save more fuel by just being smart on the throttle. I was saving bunches of it that way. It was looking really good.”
It wasn’t over yet. He passed Lauda’s McLaren for fourth on lap 37, and seven laps later made it past the Lotus of Elio de Angelis in a bold move round the outside of Tosa, as the pair encountered traffic. The tifosi were overjoyed to see their new boy in third. Only Alain Prost (McLaren) and Ayrton Senna (Lotus) now lay ahead.
“When I was right behind Prost the team began giving me the ‘Boost!’ sign. I thought, ‘Steady on guys, I’m doing all right here.’ So I just left it, and it was fine.” On lap 54, with just six to go, Stefan relieved Prost of second.
Senna was the final target, and when the black car coughed on its last drops of fuel at the end of lap 57, Johansson surged ahead. Imola erupted.
“I’ll never forget it. When I came round to Tosa in the lead, I couldn’t hear the engine because of the noise of the crowd. My hair was standing up it almost lifted my helmet off! It was amazing, it really was. And then it just cut dead. Maybe just one cough. And that was the end of it.
“We discovered after the race that there was a crack in the air inlet on the top of the engine which, of course, pushed in more air. To compensate for this, the engine was pushing more fuel in all the time. So that’s why I ran out. Normally, I would have had plenty left” He had at least earned the respect of the fans, and the walk home was an emotional one.
“When I got back to the Ferrari garage, all the mechanics were crying. Everyone was clapping their hands and hugging me. The most amazing thing, though, was to walk down the pitlane and have every single team owner commiserate with me. It was an incredible feeling.
“Old Man Ferrari was over the moon. His words were, ‘We lost the race, but we gained a driver’. I was bitterly disappointed that I didn’t win, but I was quite happy at the time. It was only my second race, and I felt that I’d made it, that I’d finally cracked it. I knew I could get the job done. Of course, at that stage of your career you think that it’s going to last forever, and that they’ll be plenty more chances. Had I known better, I would probably have hung myself there and then! Only kidding.”
The win never came, despite another season with Ferrari and one as Prost’s McLaren team-mate (1987). While he may be joking, there can be no question that a grand prix victory would have sent his career in a different direction.
“Who knows? The first one is the hardest, they say. I think it would have put me in a completely different frame of mind as far as my status within the team was concerned. It does something to you once you’ve got that breakthrough victory in the bag, something changes in your mind, there’s no doubt about it.
“All the drivers who get to that level are within five percent of each other in terms of raw talent. The rest is in your head.”